This discussion and review contains spoilers for The Last of Us episode 8, “When We Are in Need.”
“When We Are in Need” is a fascinating illustration of what The Last of Us does so well.
On the surface, “When We Are in Need” is built around some of the most familiar tropes of the apocalyptic subgenre. Ellie (Bella Ramsey) crosses paths with a seemingly wholesome community led by a preacher named David (Scott Shepherd), which turns out to have a dark secret. That’s just what happens in these kinds of narratives, to the point that it was surprisingly refreshing when “Kin” didn’t build to a shocking revelation about Maria’s (Rutina Wesley) community in Jackson.
Even the nature of that secret is fairly standard to these kinds of stories. Cannibalism is an appealing metaphor in end-of-the-world narratives like The Road or The Bad Batch, because it literalizes the idea of the strong preying on the weak and taps into the unsettling fear that human beings are ultimately either predators or meat. It is to the credit of “When We Are in Need” that it never really tries to misdirect the audience about the “venison” that David is serving, but it’s still a common trope.
However, “When We Are in Need” works in large part because it bends this convention towards the larger themes of The Last of Us, resulting in a specificity that distinguishes David’s sinister community from similar groups like those led by Pamela Milton (Laila Robins) on The Walking Dead or Cage Wallace (Johnny Whitworth) on The 100. There’s a compelling thematic consistency to The Last of Us, and David is characterized in such a way as to enrich the show around him.
The Last of Us is a show about parenthood and about codependency. As such, it is fitting that David is presented both literally and metaphorically as a father to the community at Silver Lake. Initially, he seems like an interesting foil to Joel (Pedro Pascal), another man who has found himself in the position of caregiver and provider. “I’m a decent man, just trying to take care of the people who rely on me,” David tells Ellie. Asked if that makes him a leader, he replies, “Wasn’t my choice, it was theirs. But yes.”
This is an obvious parallel to Joel’s arc across the season. Joel didn’t volunteer to be responsible for Ellie, but he found himself in that position almost by chance. He has accepted that responsibility, even though it comes with burdens and obligations. David casts himself in a similar role. When one of his men dies, David assures the dead man’s daughter (Sonia Maria Chirila), “I know you don’t think you have a father anymore, but the truth is, Hannah, you will always have a father.”
David and Joel are capable of great violence. They are both predators, in their own way. In “Please Hold to My Hand,” Joel was unable to reassure Ellie that he had never killed an innocent person. Even in “When We Are in Need,” Joel demonstrates his brutality, torturing and murdering two of David’s loyal soldiers (Jason Vaisvila and Benjamin Rogers) even after he has subdued them. David is similar. “I’ve always had a violent heart,” he confesses. “And I struggled with it for a long time, but then the world ended and I was shown the truth.”
The Last of Us is fundamentally a story about fatherhood, so it makes sense that “When We Are in Need” focuses on the Christian religious beliefs that David has instilled in his followers. The Christian God is “Our Father,” the ultimate patriarchal figure. “They need God, they need heaven, they need a Father,” David explains of his disciples, leaving it somewhat ambiguous which role he fills. As David delivers the funeral reading, a banner in the background reads, “When we are in need, He shall provide.”
Even the cannibalism motif plays into this idea. David has been feeding deceased members of the community to his congregation. It’s a grotesque parody of Holy Communion, the ritual by which priests feed parishioners wafers and wine that (symbolically or literally, depending on one’s belief system) transforms into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, the son of God. If David sees himself as the patriarch of this community, he is literally serving up his children to his followers.
As with the portrayal of Bill (Nick Offerman) in “Long Long Time,” The Last of Us is tapping into something fascinating and unsettling in the wider American popular consciousness. There is a long history of apocalyptic thought in American history, with Matthew Avery Sutton noting that — of all the possible strands of apocalypticism — “Christian apocalypticism has had by far the most powerful impact on American life.” Writers like Josiah Hesse have talked about “the apocalypse fever of evangelicals.”
Among certain religious groups within the United States, there is a palpable yearning for the end times. Large portions of evangelicals support Israel in the hope that it might trigger the apocalypse. This belief is largely rooted in readings of the book of Revelation, which David reads in the opening scene of “When We Are in Need.” It is notable that “the most successful Christian fiction series ever” is Left Behind — a series that imagines survivors enduring the end of the world.
Attempting to understand the root of this accelerating fixation, Joshua Rivera argued that such thought was “an indelible response to a dazzling secular world that was rapidly industrializing.” Mark A. Noll contended that this fixation allowed evangelicals to push “away from the visible present to the invisible future.” The modern world was complicated, challenging, and shifting. With so much change taking place, and a fear of being left behind, the idea of a biblical apocalypse holds an appeal.
This is a recurring fascination for The Last of Us. Both the show and the game are studies of masculinity in crisis. Joel is shaped by his failure to protect Sarah (Nico Parker), and so Ellie offers a chance at redemption. Bill found a similar purpose following the collapse of civilization. “When We Are in Need” suggests that the same is true of David. It seems like he was an unremarkable man before the end of the world, a “math teacher” who “struggled” with his “violent heart.” Now he can indulge it.
David talks a lot about the obligation that he feels to protect his community. Indeed, he is initially drawn to Ellie because he believes he can offer her safety and security. “I can protect you,” he promises. However, this is just a way for David to assert himself, to demonstrate power over others. The Last of Us is built around the idea of codependency, but David offers a warped and monstrous version of that. “You can’t survive on your own. No one can. But I can help you. Let me protect you.”
This is the key contrast between David and Joel. David and Joel are both violent men, but David derives pleasure from that violence. After he assures Hannah that he will be her new father, he slaps her across the face and warns her to “show him respect when he is speaking.” Later, he tries to force himself on Ellie. “Oh, I thought you already knew,” he goads her. “The fighting is the part I like the most.” It’s a very archetypal and uncomfortable idea of masculinity, one tied to violence rather than service.
The Last of Us is a show that is engaged with the idea of dependency and reliance, the idea of both needing — and of needing to be needed. This has been the case from the very first scene of “When You’re Lost in the Darkness,” which established the logic of cordyceps, the parasitic fungus that brought about the collapse of civilization. Cordyceps needs a host to survive. As “Infected” demonstrates, without a host to sustain it, it just dries out. It withers and dies.
David is a fitting antagonist for the season’s penultimate episode, because he brings the show’s larger themes into focus. As he becomes fully unhinged towards the climax of the episode, he reveals that he justifies feeding his own desires by reference to that parasitic fungus. “What does cordyceps do?” he asks. “Is it evil? No, it’s fruitful. It multiplies. It feeds and protects its children. And it secures its future with violence, if it must. It loves.” That is a monstrous, toxic, and self-serving idea of “love.”
It is also, befitting the apocalyptic setting of The Last of Us, a rather cynical view of human nature. Many of these kinds of narratives argue that humanity is perhaps best understood as a parasitic infection. Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) memorably described humanity as “a virus” in The Matrix. Given that “When You’re Lost in the Darkness” suggested climate change was the root cause of this crisis, there is only a little poetic license required to argue that humanity has given the planet “a fever.”
Ellie describes David as “an animal,” an accusation that he acknowledges and accepts. “When We Are in Need” goes further. It suggests that he is not really so different from the fungus that infects its host, turning them into monsters with a desire to sink their teeth into human flesh. When David outlines his grand ambitions to Ellie, it sounds like he’s writing a manifesto for cordyceps. “We’d make this place perfect,” he explains. “We’d grow, spread out, and we’d do whatever we needed for our people.”
This all neatly ties back into what makes The Last of Us so compelling. The show undoubtedly cycles through the familiar narrative conventions of the classic post-apocalyptic survival thriller. In terms of basic plot, there’s very little in “When We Are in Need” that hasn’t been done countless times before. However, writers Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann use these recognizable elements in a way that is compelling and cohesive, ensuring that even these tropes enrich the characters and themes.